S.C. police chiefs, governor hail sweeping police reforms in new law
The law creates new standards for training, conduct and accreditation of law enforcement in South Carolina
By Ted Clifford
COLUMBIA, S.C. — Surrounded by the heads of South Carolina law enforcement agencies, Gov. Henry McMaster ceremonially signed a sweeping law enforcement reform law Thursday.
The law, which was formally signed in May, creates new standards for training, conduct and accreditation of law enforcement in South Carolina. State leaders hope that the measures position South Carolina as a national leader in law-enforcement-led police reform.
“It’s time to add, it’s time to modify and it’s time to modernize,” McMaster said. In his remarks, the governor characterized law enforcement as one of the “shining” strengths of South Carolina, and emphasized that the reform law would strengthen policing in the state.
“We don’t defund the police here,” said McMaster.
At the heart of the law, which went into effect July 1, is a requirement that all law enforcement agencies in South Carolina become accredited or meet equivalent minimum standards. At present, just 51 of the 335 agencies in the state are fully accredited, according to the South Carolina Criminal Justice Academy.
Among other measures, the law requires officers to intervene if they see another officer physically abusing another person and puts new limits on old practices like chokeholds and the kind of work an officer can do before completing academy training.
The bill has been heavily endorsed by law enforcement leaders, who were involved in nearly two years of consultation and testimony.
“The modernization of law enforcement is something we all need,” said Richland County Sheriff Leon Lott. “It’s something we should be doing and we welcome it.”
The new legislation charges the Law Enforcement Training Council — a supervisory body consisting of the state attorney general, the SLED chief, and the heads of nine law enforcement agencies — with creating minimum standards across nine key areas. These include use of force, no-knock warrants, vehicle pursuits and investigating complaints against officers.
The council will vote on the new policies Monday, Aug. 22. They will then go into effect Jan. 1, 2023.
Agencies will be inspected to see if they meet these standards or have obtained accreditation from either the South Carolina Law Enforcement Accreditation Council or the Commission on Accreditation for Law Enforcement Agencies, a Virginia-based organization that accredits agencies worldwide.
“It is no longer acceptable for any agency in South Carolina to merely exist without any guidelines,” said SLED Chief Mark Keel. “None of the moves I’ve seen are as important or more transformative as this particular legislation.”
The Law Enforcement Training Council will be empowered to conduct inspections and administer fines and file civil injunctions against agencies that fall short of these standards, which will also include standards on body worn cameras and the establishment of early warning systems to identify “at-risk” behaviors of law enforcement officers.
Among new requirements for officers is a “duty to intervene,” obliging officers to step in or report if they witness another officer harming someone while on the job. Failure to do so will now be considered official misconduct, alongside excessive force and abusing prisoners.
“When [other directors] hear how robust our misconduct statute is here in South Carolina, they’re very envious,” said Lewis Swindler, the director of the Criminal Justice Academy. “We are way ahead of most of this country”
Crucially, the new bill ends a long standing practice that allowed new hires at police agencies to operate for up to a year with full police powers before completing basic law enforcement training at the academy.
As of July 1, new hires are not be allowed to direct the public or make arrests on their own until they have completed academy training. However, they will still be empowered to act as full law enforcement officers prior to completing this training if they pass a firearms qualification course and are accompanied by a fully certified law enforcement officer.
“That is a big improvement for the state of South Carolina,” said Swindler. He emphasized that in recent years the academy had considerably shortened its wait list — now most new hires are able to get a spot in a training course within weeks, rather than months, said Swindler.